Your Beautiful Brain: Dispatches From the Frontiers of Neuroscience

Friday, March 10, 2017

By Bill Retherford '14JRN

Peer into the human skull, probe the brain’s tofu-like texture, and there, in that microscopic terrain, the neurons exist, nearly infinitesimal. Fifty of them would fit on the period at the end of this sentence. Most form before birth and stay with us until death, although some, due to disease or disuse, eventually shrink, slow down, or succumb. The brains of frogs hold sixteen million neuronal cells; fox terriers, one hundred sixty million. Yet the human brain, with its eighty-six billion neurons, still doesn’t house the most. The African elephant has three times as many, and blue whales likely have billions more, though no one is certain.

Individual neurons are not self-aware. They do not know what they are, where they are, or who you are. They do not think. Rather, they permit us to think. Like the frenzy within a pinball machine, the neurons fling directives back and forth, ceaselessly communicating and connecting with other nerve cells. These neuronal networks control every thought, feeling, sensation, and movement. They are the conduits that lead to consciousness; they make sense of our senses. Only because of them do our brains and bodies work. Minus the networks, our minds would be slush, gibberish. Phantasms would replace perceptions.

Read the full article in Columbia Magazine.